Harriet Freiberger: Thanking our defenders
November 10, 2012
Veterans come home, some alive, and too many dead. As civilians, they seek no recognition, only to be part of everyday life in communities of their choice. They have given precious years to stand guard. On Sunday, we honor them.
The tradition began on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, one year after a truce ended World War I. More than 1.4 million American soldiers fought overseas in that war. One-third of them came back either wounded or not at all. Armistice Day became an official annual recognition of those veterans.
Then, almost a quarter-century later, another global battleground spread into more than 50 countries. Americans comprised one-fourth of the 62 million mobilized on the side of freedom. More than 400,000 never came back. Veterans of WWII, along with the civilians whose support helped make victory possible, became known as "The Greatest Generation."
Only five years passed before the U.S. military again was summoned to front lines, this time by the newly established United Nations, to defend South Korea against its invading northern counterpart. When a truce finally returned troops from Korea, neither ticker-tape parades nor thank yous awaited.
The next generation of veterans came home from a conflict on the other side of the Pacific to an even greater conflict at home. That war was never actually declared by Congress. Its purpose and continuing enlargement converged with a changing culture in the United States. The Vietnam Memorial's mirrored black surface speaks to lingering sadness that enveloped the men and women who survived. Not until the Persian Gulf War, in the 20th century's final decade, did wearers of military uniforms again feel the warmth of a welcome home.
Now, soldiers, sailors, pilots and marines are returning, this time from Afghanistan and Iraq to their home front on American soil. They could be great-great-grandchildren of those heroes of the 1940s. During the years between WWI and the War Against Terror, Nov. 11 has become a reflection of the constancy and change that connect past and present.
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Armistice Day first was observed on the anniversary of a cease-fire to a war that had brought death on a new scale. Men fought in that "war to end all wars." Their service represented hope for a new relationship among nations, for a peace that has been subsequently threatened, defended, defeated, restored and defeated again. As WWI and WWII have become pages in history books, America's ambivalence toward war resulted in decreasing respect — not for those who caused the conflict but rather for those who wear its military uniform.
When Congress, after Korea, changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day, the action proved prescient of the need for advancement toward an understanding of something larger. Through the latter half of the century, the day has marked a long-ago agreement to end hostilities and an increasing awareness of the exponential growth of war's potential destruction, particularly its impact upon our young men and women who stand at its front.
It is up to us to find a new path. Fifty years from now, will the world of the future look back at 2012 and see an even Greater Generation advancing toward something more permanent than an armistice?
America's veterans, more than anyone, recognize the foundation of peaceful living. The U.S. Constitution guarantees protection of the law to its citizens. Those who wear this country's military uniform have sworn to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic …"
Sunday is the day to say thank you to its defenders.
Harriet Freiberger has lived in the Elk River valley since 1982.